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November 12, 2012

Australian Gov't Abandons Five-Year Pledge to Mandate an Internet Filter

By Shankar Pandiath, TMCnet Contributor

The Australian Government has backed out on its five-year pledge to mandate an Internet filter, blocking objectionable Internet content and child pornography. Instead of a compulsory filter, Internet service providers have agreed to prohibit 1,400 child abuse websites from INTERPOL’s ‘worst of’ list, according to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

Optus, Telstra (News - Alert) and Primus, three of the largest telecommunications companies of Australia, have blocked the listed sites since 2010.

"We've actually reached agreement with the industry to block child pornography and we think that is a significant step forward," Conroy told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

The U.S. State Department had expressed concerns about the proposed regulations, which would have been the most restrictive in a democratic country. The critics were of the view that the proposed legislated filter would put Australia in the same censorship league as China.

The pledge would have ensured a nationwide filter banning sites that also carried extreme violence as well as detailed instructions in terrorist acts, crime and drug use. The new plan now has a narrower focus on child abuse.

Critics who opposed the compulsory filter argued that the action could restrict free speech, the vital component that makes the democracies tick. It could also erroneously block harmless sites and could eventually slow the Internet speed altogether.

Geordie Guy, an anti-censorship campaigner, has welcomed the move, and is satisfied with the government’s reversal on the issue. According to Guy, the new agreement will have little impact on the objectionable content related to child abuse and other crimes as the content is not traded on open Web.

"While this is a much better result than any of the previous proposals that the government came up with, it's still really unlikely to do much good," Guy told ABC.

Peter Lee, CEO for the Internet Industry Association of Australia, was "pleased that the government has now moved on" from the filter, and had narrowed its focus to illegal child abuse.

The Australian Electoral Lobby, however, is not happy by the decision, and it said the government’s agreement with ISPs fell short of its cyber safety pledge made five years ago during the 2007 election campaign.

"The government's decision not to legislate to the full extent of the commitment is a great disappointment," the Lobby's managing director Jim Wallace said.

The opposition was of the view that the Government had realized it couldn’t get the filter legislation passed through the sessions of parliament. A key government ally ‘The Greens party’ had joined the opposition in condemnation of the mandatory filter proposal, and had termed the proposed legislation as a serious restriction of free speech.

Edited by Braden Becker
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